Correctional psychology is an area of psychology that focuses on applying psychology to a correctional setting. According to researcher Michael Decaire, "The correctional psychologist's primary mission is to assist in offender rehabilitation and reintegration." Other duties include promoting a healthy institutional environment to improve staff and inmate safety, delivering direct psychological services to inmates, conducting evaluations of the prison population, contributing to inmate management, and providing release evaluation and recommendations. While correctional has become a highly popular sub-discipline of psychology, it is also riddled with unique ethical dilemmas and conflicts. Unfortunately, many of the ethical dilemmas within correctional psychology appear to be far from successful resolution. There is virtually no recent academic literature concerning the ethical problems in corrections, and even fewer recommendations on how one should proceed when faced with such problems (Weinberger & Sreenivasan, 1994). The ethical guidelines that govern psychological practice are equally unhelpful.
While psychologist in and out of prison face many similar issues, the prison environment often adds special challenges.
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One challenge facing correctional psychologists is the doctrine of deliberate indifference. The concept of deliberate indifference was first stated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Estelle v. Gamble in 1976. The ruling was based on the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, stating that this right is violated if a prisoner in need of medical attention does not receive reasonable medical care.
Federal courts have extended this idea to include mental health. Thus, while a psychologist in the community can accept clients when they come to a health care center to seek services, the correctional psychologist has the additional ethical responsibility to seek out those who need services, and prisons have the legal responsibility to provide the resources for those services.
One recent case involved prisoners in Indiana state prisons. A bench trial occurred in July 2011 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, and Judge Tanya Walton Pratt issued a ruling in December 31, 2012 (Case No. 1:08-cv-01317-TWP-MJD). The ruling noted that of the 26,700 state inmates, about 22% (nearly 6,000 inmates) were diagnosed as mentally ill, yet the mental health unit had room for only 250 inmates. Thus, the plaintiffs claimed that if an inmate began to show typical signs of schizophrenia and did not comply with rules, then he was seldom treated; rather he was punished in some way, including use of force and segregation. The ruling by Judge Pratt concluded that such treatment shows deliberate indifference to the mental health needs of the inmates. "The Plaintiffs’ thesis that the effect of segregation on mentally ill prisoners in Indiana is toxic to their welfare is supported by a preponderance of the evidence," wrote Judge Pratt. The evidence includes reports of use of force, acts of self-harm, and suicides.
- Hawk, K. M. (1997). Personal reflections on a career in correctional psychology. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 28(4), 335-337
- Van Voorhis, P. & Spencer, K. (1999). When programs "don’t work" with everyone: Planning for differences among correctional clients. Corrections Today, 2, 38-42
- American Psychological Association (1992). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Washington, DC: Author
- Canadian Psychological Association (1991). The Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists.
- Rold, W. J. (2008). Thirty years after Estelle v. Gamble: A legal retrospective. Journal of Correctional Health Care, vol. 14(1), pages 11-20. doi: 10.1177/1078345807309616
- Bober, D. I., & Pinals, D. A. Prisoners' rights and deliberate indifference. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law vol 35(3), pages 388-391
- Ruling by Judge Pratt, Dec 31, 2012